May 10, 2017

Prepare S.C. Students For Tech Future

Kirk King and Ernest Andrade  /  Post and Courier

It used to be that graduating high school with keyboarding class as our only "technology" course was a reasonable expectation. We probably drove in cars without airbags, and our TV rabbit ears only brought in a few channels clearly.

Luckily, technology-enabled improvements in consumer goods mean that we're safer on the roads today than ever before in the modern era, and with cable, Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, our entertainment options are unlimited –- and available at 30,000 feet.

Unfortunately, in many South Carolina K-12 schools, students are still graduating with technology skills as relevant and reliable as a Ford Pinto or black and white TV. The vast majority of high schools in the state do not offer a computer science course –- and, far too often, keyboarding classes are being used to meet current state graduation requirements for computer science.

Today's workforce demands that we innovate in education. Graduates need to have computational thinking skills and the ability to create and apply technology, not just use it –- all skills developed through exposure to rigorous computer science education. It doesn't matter whether a student is going to major in computer science and take one of the fastest growing, highest paying jobs in the economy. Simply exposing students to K-12 computer science as a foundational subject is critical for all of our students given our technology-enabled workforce and society.

The State Legislature and Department of Education are both supportive of expanding computer science in our state. The Legislature is proposing a bill to meet this goal by expanding access to K-12 computer science. The South Carolina Computer Science Education Initiative would require all public and charter high schools to offer at least one rigorous computer science course, and it would provide the professional learning funds schools would need to prepare educators to teach it.

Research shows that if students' interest in computer science is harnessed early on and developed through the Advanced Placement level in high school, they are much more likely to pursue tech-related careers in college. It's a career field that is growing, both in terms of job opportunities and earning potential. Currently, the average salary in computing occupations in South Carolina is about $73,000, which is nearly double the average salary statewide. But these jobs demand strong candidates, and strong candidates are grown in our schools.

In 2016, only 32 schools offered an Advanced Placement Computer Science in South Carolina. Less than 400 high-schoolers –- the majority of whom were white and male –- took the exam. Less than 1-in-5 were female, and only 27 were black and 12 were Latino. These outcomes are not feeding a workforce hungry for qualified candidates. Rather, these outcomes signal to employers that creating a diverse, skilled workforce is not a top priority.

In South Carolina, we have more than 4,000 open positions and demand for these jobs is growing at 3.7 times the state average. And we're making progress.

Blake Vaught –- a computer science teacher at the Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology in Myrtle Beach –- teaches computer science as a necessary skill for students, comparing it with teaching kids how the car works and not just how to drive. His students are developing problem-solving skills as they become exposed to the design and operation of computer hardware and software. Vaught is also working with area business leaders to provide mentoring and internships for students, allowing them to make real-world connections to their learning.

In Charleston, The Citadel is partnering with to provide high-quality computer science professional development opportunities for South Carolina teachers in kindergarten through high school.

These efforts should be celebrated. But they need support from this legislation to work toward a goal of computer science for every student that wants to take it regardless of income or race. Jobs in this field are high-paying and growing quickly. Ninety percent of parents want computer science in our schools. Students who take rigorous computer science cite it as one of their top three favorite subjects. And it is a truly foundational subject just like biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. Why aren't we providing widespread access to a truly rigorous and engaging K-12 computer science?

The answer is that we should be, and we need the South Carolina Computer Science Education Initiative as an investment in our future. It recognizes and adheres to the evolving demands of today's economy, and it signals to employers that we care about producing a skilled and diverse workforce. Let's be sure not to miss out on this opportunity to prepare the next generation of South Carolinians for success.

Kirk King is chairman of the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation. Ernest Andrade is director of the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation.